by Kristin Berkery

Tennessee Walker horse abuse

From the Horse’s Mouth is a fact-based fictional story about two Tennessee Walkers who endure abuse in the name of winning ribbons.

A cause that is near and dear to my heart is campaigning against show horse abuse. Showing is stressful enough on horses — they must travel in a trailer or airplane, sometimes for days; they must live in a strange facility for a week or more; they encounter unfamiliar humans all around them; and they must tolerate a lot of noise and commotion. Adding abuse to the mix is simply inhumane.

I respect anyone who speaks out against show horse abuse because they often encounter hostility, blacklisting, and even threats against their safety. Why is standing up against show horse abuse so politically charged? Because professional trainers who utilize abusive “training” techniques often rely on their trophy-winning reputations to get new business. Many owners don’t realize their horses are being abused because the owners don’t know much about horse training or they turn a blind eye to it because they want their horses to win.

Big Lick Tennessee Walker
Girl Scout Troop 44 in New York produced a video speaking out against the practice of soring in Tennessee Walkers. This video won a Girl Scout Gold Award. It’s discouraging to know that it takes kids to make such an informative video — but kids can be far more insightful and concerned with justice than adults in some cases.

The Friends of the Sound Horse have been campaigning for years against show horse abuse in the Tennessee Walking Horse breed, which has notoriously (and sadly) been known for show abuse. Walking Horses that are shown with padded hooves (called “Big Lick”) have an exaggerated gait that fires up crowds, but the horses often endure severe pain from having caustic liquids applied to their coronet bands (the skin above their hooves) and then chains are placed around the pasterns (ankles) to apply more pressure to the area. Called “soring,” this technique is so painful that the horse will do anything it can to avoid putting weight on its front hooves.

X-ray of a Tennessee Walker show horse's hoof

An x-ray of a Tennessee Walker show horse’s hoof with Big Lick pads attached. Photo from the USDA

Soring has been illegal since 1970 — yet it’s still practiced at Walking Horse shows because the USDA, which polices for soring at less than 10% of the shows, is underfunded and unable to catch many offenders. Friends of the Sound Horse estimates that if the USDA monitored every Tennessee Walker show in the United States, 10,000 or 20,000 violations could be written each year!

Tennessee Walking Horses are a part of American history — they are descended from the saddle horses and Thoroughbreds used as riding horses on the plantations in the South. They’ve been bred for generations to be smart but level-headed, and their very smooth gaits are ideal for riders of all ability levels. Knowing that many of these horses have been tortured for money, ribbons, and prestige is disturbing for those of us who truly love horses. Read about Molly, a former Big Lick Tennessee Walker who was rescued but couldn’t be saved because of the injuries she suffered from her show career.

Big Lick Tennessee Walker

A Big Lick Tennessee Walker. Photo by Marty Barr

If you want to help The Friends of the Sound Horse continue their quest to educate the public and catch offenders, become a member of their organization. You can also send letters to the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders and Exhibitors Association and the USDA condemning the practice.

In July 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that increases inspections at shows and penalties for soring infractions. Next, the bill will go to the Senate for a vote.